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The Art of Having a Conversation With Those With Whom You Disagree



I remember being in a Christian Facebook group in which people were debating Calvinism vs Arminianism. Honestly, I am not really 100% in either camp, so I was really just spectating in this debate, but as I read through the discourse, this Scripture came to mind:


No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. - ‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭2:4‬


It seemed totally random that this Scripture would come to mind. It didn’t really make sense to me in this situation initially. When these kinds of thoughts, which I am convinced I could not possibly conjure myself pop in my head, and especially when these thoughts are straight-up quotes from Scripture, I suspect the Holy Spirit is speaking to me.


I asked, “How can this possibly be civilian affairs? This is theology!” He reiterated to me that it is a civilian affair. This thought is still stretching me three years later. Our theology can become civilian affairs... crazy.


Our theological benders can masquerade as standing up for truth. In reality, we are dividing the family of God over frivolous things... at least in that particular conversation that seemed to be what was going on.


So, how do we have productive discourse with individuals with whom we disagree?


1. Have the humility to learn the language


I was reading the book “Out of the Silent Planet” by CS Lewis. The story centres around Elwin Ransom, who is a linguist and gets kidnapped by a couple of thugs and taken to a strange planet. He escapes from his captors and ends up living with some aliens. He spends a whole lot of time listening to the aliens and eventually learns their language.


His captors never do learn the language of the aliens and end up killing one of them and end up being put on trial. Elwin ends up being their translator, which puts him in a really interesting position. Is it too late to say “spoiler alert”? I mean... the book came out in 1938.


Anyways, I was thinking: “Why did Ransom learn the language and his captors not?”


Well, of course, Ransom was a linguist, so there’s that. I can’t help but think, though, about just how arrogant these captors were. When you are arrogant you don’t have much hope of learning anything. When you are arrogant you are much more prone to talk than you are to listen.


It takes humility to listen, and it takes listening to learn other people's language so they can actually understand you and perhaps respect what you have to say.


Why is this so important? Let’s just say, if you were to talk to a uber legalistic church lady, you could easily allow your message to be lost completely by dropping a few cuss words. She’ll be so put off that your message will not be received at all. The same is true about progressives... just cease to use the political correct terms they insist on you using, and it has the exact same effect.


I know it seems humiliating to have to use those terms, but I think there are cases where you should just use them anyways in hopes that they will then actually be willing to hear what you have to say.


You know... like Paul said: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

- ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭9:19-23‬ ‭NIV‬‬


2. Foster a Free Marketplace of Ideas


Alright... I’m pretty sure most of the individuals reading this blog are big on the free market. So, what makes the free market work? Supply and demand.


Does the person want to hear what you have to say? If not, how do you create a demand? I find myself constantly assessing that because I do like to talk way more than I like to listen. Often this is the case with us opinionated people.


I think demand is created through curiosity. How do we foster the curiosity in the person with whom we are talking? I guess by being interesting, right? How do we be interesting? I think being well-read is huge. We need to understand our culture and understand our faith. Reading, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries all help you create the content you can disseminate. I also think general pop-culture knowledge and having a sense of humor is very helpful. That is basically why I watch Netflix sitcoms and dramas; I am trying to understand our culture and understand what is actually funny so I can also be funny.


Our own curiosity drives us to read, watch and listen to these various content providers, and the knowledge we curate and disseminate makes us interesting and fosters the curiosity of those with whom we are having a conversation.


I really do think variety is key. I often have conversations with people and I know exactly where they get their information from. A whole lot of conservatives get their talking points from people like Ben Shapiro, and it shows. I’ve heard all those talking points, it’s not that interesting to me. Personally, if I am hearing the same argument from the other side I’ve heard repeatedly, I’m bored and not listening.


The way we gather information should be the same way an artist gathers creative inspiration. If there is a musician that listens to nothing but Nickelback, his music will sound like Nickelback... which some people will like, but that musician isn’t really contributing anything new to the music landscape, he is just amplifying what is already there. However, if an artist diversifies their listening, they may create a whole new sound. Their voice will be unique and their contribution can be very valuable. Personally, I value the latter both aritistically and intellectually. It peaks my curiosity.


For a lot of people, curiosity must be reciprocal. If you are curious about them, they may be curious about you. Very few people you encounter will be willing to just be conversation consumers... they want to be conversation producers as well.


I really like Jordan Peterson’s rule 9 of his 12 Rules for Life, “assume everyone you’re listening to knows something you don’t.” This allows you to listen with a posture of humility. Yes, you could learn something from that atheist, that socialist or that Canadian (just had to throw that in).


I talk a lot on my podcast, ADD Masterminds, about this idea of “tradesies evangelism”. I argue that, rather than approaching a non-believer with this sort of superior mentality, “I know the truth and everything you believe is garbage," you decide to let them share something with you that you don’t know, and you can share something with them that they don’t know. Tradesies.


3. Ask questions for clarification


So... once you actually have this person talking to you, asking questions for clarification will help you destroy the straw man you have created. If you honestly want to know their point of view rather than only being intent on “utterly destroying” them, the conversation will go much better.


Much of this involves us getting out of the way and allowing the truth to come out. In the free market of ideas, we have to trust that there’s an invisible hand will bring the truth to surface.


Now, if their point of view is ridiculous, telling them is not likely going to do a whole lot. It is far more effective to show them through questioning. One of my favourite proverbs is:


Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

- ‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭26:4-5‬ ‭NIV‬‬


Now, first of all, what is a fool? I define a fool as someone who will not listen to reason. I can be a fool myself. I see myself as a recovering fool. I need to be reminded where I’ve come from. I also need to be reminded that I am currently a fool at times. Don’t be the fool. Keep an open mind to consider the validity of perpective as you allow them to fully explain their thinking. It may not be as crazy and nonsensical as you think.


If you are actually encountering someone who is indeed a fool, question them. Ask questions that will take their idea to its logical conclusion.


One time a person in one of my small groups claimed that there are two wills of God. His divine will and His will adapted do to our faulty free will choice. It was a weird thought to me. I’m not saying I know for sure they are wrong, but it certainly didn’t seem logical to me initially. They seemed very convinced what they were saying was completely logical and obvious. I decided to test the notion out: “Who here in this room married a spouse who was not the divine will of God?”


It’s a question we wouldn’t really want to answer. It’s a question not really worth answering. What does it matter now anyways? The point I was making, now looking in retrospect, was what is the merit of separating the Divine will verses the will of God adapted due to our faulty free will choice anyways? So we can have regrets? Should we have regrets about whom we married?


To me, that was an example of trying to show a fool their folly via questioning. I was kind of letting them answer. They didn’t really answer my question. Maybe they just assumed I was making a joke. Maybe I was kind of doing both as the proverb states, answering them according to their folly and not answering them. I have no idea what the effect of my question was. It was funny for me though, and I still think it is thought-provoking. What is the purpose of this type of theology? Does it actually serve a benefit? I’m still convinced it doesn’t really serve a positive purpose. I could be wrong. I’d be happy to talk to someone I disagree with on this to has it out further.


Honestly, when it comes to conversation with those I disagree with, I am just figuring it out. Having a posture of “just figuring it out” works well in this type of conversation. It is disarming to meet someone who claims they are just figuring it out and want to journey with you. Questions are so important. Questions are what guide our learning so we can grow. If you have all the answers, you have none of the right questions.


Lastly, I’m going to leave you with this quote. Rick Parkyn is a preacher I met at Veteran Camp, a full gospel Bible camp. He talked about contending for our faith, contending for righteousness.


Contend, but do not be contentious.

- Rick Parkyn 


My prayer is that we do contend, but not be contentious in every conversation we have with those with whom we disagree.


John Howey is an Industrial Hygienist in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He hosts The Wax Museum Podcast (@waxmuseumpod), and cohosts ADD Masterminds podcast (@addmasterminds). He also is a musician under the artist name Bridge Livwat (@bridgelivwat) and is releasing his single “monkey with a gun” in August. You can follow his personal account on twitter at @johnnyhow.

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